The word ‘independence’ appears sixteen times in the SNP’s 2021 election manifesto. Four of those are in headers. Two are in boxes, which are usually just summaries of what has been said in the body text. Which leaves six appearances in the text of the manifesto. One of these is the single obligatory mention in Nicola Sturgeon’s introduction to the manifesto. One wonders if it was in her original draft. We’re down to five.
If we discount the mentions which are mere repetitions or references to what might be done with the powers of independence or what cannot be done without the powers of a normal nation, we are left with one statement – fewer than 100 words – which sets out what the party is pleased to call it’s ‘plan’ for restoring Scotland’s independence. Although that form of words is not used. But let’s come back to that. For the moment, let’s look at that statement from the ‘party of independence’.
We are seeking the permission of the Scottish people in this election for an independence referendum to take place after the crisis. This would be within the next Parliamentary term on a specific date to be determined by our democratically elected parliament. If the Covid crisis has passed, the SNP intention is for the referendum to be within the first half of the five year term – once the crisis is over but in time to equip our Parliament with the full powers it needs to drive our long term recovery from Covid and build a better, fairer nation.
Postponing a new independence referendum until “the Covid crisis has passed” is mentioned three times. The stress is entirely on this pointless and indefinable precondition rather than on the urgency of the situation. The referendum could be held within two and a half years Failing that, it’ll be within five years – the term of the parliament. Or not! It all depends on whether the (SNP) Scottish Government decides that the criteria for declaring the Covid crisis ended have been met. At least, we must assume it’s the Scottish Government that would decide. We’re not told. Neither are we told what those criteria are. We have no way of knowing when the precondition for holding a referendum has been met. It could be in the next 30 months. It could be within the next five years. It could just as readily be within the next ten years. Or twenty. We have no way of knowing.
Without some way of defining the criteria for the crisis being over the decision as to whether or when the referendum takes place is entirely in Nicola Sturgeon’s hands. Entirely in the hands of the person who has spent the last six years finding excuses to delay a referendum. So that’s not promising. But then, there is no promise. There is no actual undertaking to do anything – ever!
What is also lacking is any explanation as to why there should be this precondition in the first place. What is it about the Covid crisis which prevents us holding a referendum but does not prevent us holding an election? What is it about the Covid crisis which stops Scotland holding a referendum but is no obstacle to other countries doing so? Lacking any explanation as to why it is necessary, we are entitled to assume that it isn’t. So why is this precondition there? What is it for? What does it do?
What it does is give Nicola Sturgeon total control. It gives her a justification for putting off action. A justification which she also controls. It’s watertight. The manifesto might as well tell us that we’ll get a referendum when it suits Nicola Sturgeon and not before. That would at least be honest. Although I can see why it was felt that more judicious wording was required.
On the subject of judicious wording, the term ‘Section 30’ is notable by its absence. Presumably so that Sturgeon’s apologists can not its absence when the subject comes up. As it inevitably must. Does the lack of any mention of Section 30 of the Scotland Act imply that Sturgeon has abandoned her stubborn commitment to the Section 30 process? Not a bit of it! It’s still there. But judiciously worded.
As the Scottish Government, we will discuss with the UK Government the necessary transfer of power to put a referendum beyond legal challenge and in the hands of the Scottish Parliament. For the UK government to refuse to do so would be both undemocratic and unsustainable.
The first sentence means that Nicola Sturgeon intends to make yet another request for a Section 30 order. So why not just say so? I think we know the answer to that. Eyes have been opened to the true nature of the Section 30 process to such an extent that even an SNP leadership and senior management notorious for studiously avoiding the pulse of the independence movement is aware of how much opposition there now is to a process which cannot possibly lead to a free and fair exercise by the people of Scotland of our right of self-determination. Which is unsurprising, given that preventing anything that would the Union in jeopardy is precisely the purpose of Section 30.
But that’s a subject which has been well covered already by myself and others. No useful purpose can be served by going over it all again here. Suffice it to say that the two objections to the Section 30 process – either of which is conclusive – are that it cannot lead to a free and fair referendum because it invites the unwarranted influence of an external power known to be vehemently opposed to both a free and fair referendum and the restoration of Scotland’s independence; and that to request the consent of the British government is to compromise the sovereignty of Scotland’s people in exchange for the mess of pottage that is a promise of honest cooperation from the British political elite in a process that they would sell their children to have fail if they hadn’t sold them several times already.
It’s not difficult to see why Nicola Sturgeon might be a bit shy of stating explicitly what she intends to do.
The second sentence in the above quote should also be treated with care. Sturgeon says that for the British state to refuse a Section 30 order would be “undemocratic and unsustainable”. But it would only be unsustainable if the British state was concerned about it being undemocratic. And it’s undemocratic precisely because it’s being sustained. The wording is intended to convey the idea that denial of an unmentionable Section 30 order must inevitably cease and that a referendum could therefore be held. Never mind that it would be a referendum burdened with more conditions than Nicola Sturgeon”s not -quite-a-promise to hold a referendum, it would be a referendum, and that’s all that matters.
Unless it wasn’t. A referendum, I mean. By asking for permission and accepting the terms Sturgeon would be providing the British Nationalist regime in London with the means to sabotage the referendum. Or delay it. Or give Sturgeon more excuses for endless postponement.
Unpack that sentence and what you get statement which does endless circuits of a semantic mobius strip. But it’s not the only thing that makes no sense while superficially seeming to say something significant. Let’s look at the two paragraphs which bookend the one quoted earlier.
The SNP is clear the referendum must be capable of bringing about independence and therefore it must be accepted as legitimate and constitutional at home and abroad.
If the democratically elected Scottish Parliament passes the referendum bill and the UK Government then attempts to block it by taking legal action we will vigorously defend the Parliament’s will in order to protect the democratic rights of the Scottish people.
The first paragraph says that the referendum must be all the things that Nicola Sturgeon insists it can only be if a Section 30 order is requested and granted. The second paragraph says that the Scottish Parliament has the power to authorise a constitutional referendum regardless of the UK Government’s objections. Two totally contrary and contradictory positions. Or to look at it another way, a position for everyone. Take your pick! If you agree with Nicola Sturgeon’s take on the whole Section 30 thing, take the first paragraph and ignore the other one. If you see Section 30 for what it really is then the second paragraph is the one for you – so long as you can manage to pretend that the first one isn’t there.
One more example of the senselessness of Sturgeon’s whole approach to the constitutional issue – that the manifesto carefully avoids spelling ot – and then I have to stop. It’s just too painful dealing with such a haphazard, ill-thought, half-arsed approach to the most important issue this country faces. But I have to say something more about this ‘after Covid’ conditionality being applied to a referendum. On the one hand Sturgeon says we need the normal powers of a normal nation in order to manage Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic. I would contend that this managing of recovery should have started about ten minutes after the pandemic was declared. At worst, it should be starting now. Nicola Sturgeon seems to suppose – or wants the public to imagine – that managing recovery is subsequent to the Covid crisis. Or at least that it’s something that can wait until we’re approaching the end of the crisis. Although how we’ll know we’re approaching an end-point that can’t be specified and may not even exist remains a mystery.
Here’s the thing. She says we need the powers of independence in order to properly manage the recovery from Covid. But she isn’t proposing to begin the process of restoring those powers until after the Covid crisis is over and presumably we are into the hypothetical recovery phase. There is considerable diversity of opinion on how long the process of restoring Scotland’s independence might take. Some put it at 18 months, while others reckon it would take that number of years, or more! The point is that it would take some time. Meanwhile, who is managing the recovery? According to the SNP manifesto there could be a period measured in years during which Scotland will lack vital powers needed to manage recovery in the way that best suits Scotland. Am I alone in thinking this makes less than no sense? Can’t you just feel it sucking sense out of a situation which has already been sucked dry of sense?
We propose that the referendum should be held once the immediate Covid crisis has passed but in good time to equip our Parliament with the powers it needs to drive our long term recovery from Covid.
It is definitively impossible for the referendum to be both “in good time” and “once the immediate Covid crisis has passed”. This is the drivel the SNP is offering having been given six years to think about the constitutional issue.
I mentioned earlier that the manifesto does not doesn’t say anything about restoring Scotland’s independence. Indeed, I can’t recall ever having heard anyone in or around the SNP leadership speak of the constitutional issue in such terms. Independence is most commonly portrayed as something we must win. Like a prize for making the best debating points. Or a reward for having proved we can manage our own affairs which must be earned whilst we are not permitted to run our own affairs. We rarely, if ever, hear our politicians speak of a fight to recover something which is ours by right but which is being wrongfully withheld from us.
Language matters. It matters not least because because the language we use both reflects and informs our worldview. We give an account of what we perceive using words. But the words we use can also influence the way we perceive. We look at a situation or event or phenomenon or object or person and we describe it as we see it. But in describing it we change the the way we see it. Perhaps in ways too small to be noticeable. But often in very major ways.
What does the language used by Nicola Sturgeon in discussing the constitutional issue tell us about how she perceives the situation? The first impression is that she inexplicably confused about the entire concept for someone who maintains that independence is at the heart of her politics. It also appears that she thinks of Scotland’s independence as being in the gift of the UK Government. There’s lots of fine take about the sovereignty of the people – until that sovereignty is traded for false promises from British politicians. There’s lots of fine talk about the Scottish Parliament. Talk which seems to suggest she considers Holyrood the rightful Parliament of Scotland and therefore the only parliament with legitimate democratic authority in Scotland. She talks of doing things that would require that the primacy of the Scottish Parliament be asserted. But she will not undertake to assert the primacy of the Scottish Parliament.
I listen to Nicola Sturgeon; I read the SNP’s manifesto, and the language speaks to me of independence being something that would be nice to have, but not something she is prepared to really fight for. That is why the manifesto offers no plan to restore Scotland’s independence. It barely offers the pretence of a plan. There is no plan. Because a real plan to restore Scotland’s independence would have to acknowledge that this cannot be done without confrontation with the British sate and without stepping outside the legal and constitutional framework which supports and preserves the Union. Sturgeon is neither up for the confrontation nor prepared to break any British rules. She is incapable of ‘leading us to independence’. She offers only hope when we desperately need action.
I said our thinking about a situation can be altered by putting the thinking into words. I started out intended to say that the people of Scotland are being short-changed by the SNP’s 2021 election manifesto. Having written a couple of thousand words on the subject, I now think a more appropriate term would be ‘swindled’.